With the turn of the calendar from January to February, crunch time is nearing for college basketball teams around the country as March Madness approaches. Unfortunately in Utah, last week was not a very good one as far as jockeying for NCAA Tournament positioning was concerned.
Here’s a rundown of the action around the state.
With their tournament chances looking really excellent heading into last week, the Cougars took a dip with a loss to the Pepperdine Waves last Wednesday. BYU nearly took another bad punch on Saturday at home against the Pacific Tigers in a game that was scheduled at the last minute (the San Francisco Dons had to pause activities because of COVID-19) but snuck away with a win in double overtime.
As it stands now, the Cougars can probably afford another couple of losses against some of the better teams in the West Coast Conference (certainly top-ranked Gonzaga and probably Saint Mary’s), but they need to take care of business against pretty much everyone else if they want to keep their odds of making the tournament comfortable.
On that note, BYU’s two games scheduled this week are against the two lowest-ranked NET teams in the conference. The Cougars are set to face the San Diego Toreros on Tuesday and the Portland Pilots on Thursday, with both contests scheduled to be on the road.
BYU has to win both.
Last week in this space, we wrote that it would be interesting to see how the Aggies responded after their 11-game win streak was snapped on Jan. 21. In their first game after that last Monday night, things did not go well against UNLV on the road, although they almost pulled off a miraculous comeback after being down by nine with just 1:19 to play before losing by three.
Utah State came back and beat the Runnin’ Rebels in the rubber match on Wednesday, but and this point, it’s looking like a lot is going to have to shake right for the Aggies to make the Big Dance with an at-large bid, as ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had them as the last team on his “First Four Out” list most recently updated on Monday.
First and foremost, Utah State probably needs to sweep remaining series against Fresno State, Wyoming and Nevada. If it does that, the series set for Feb. 17 and 19 on the road against Boise State is going to be absolutely massive, as the Broncos were all the way up at No. 21 in the NET rankings.
If both teams take care of business between now and then, a win or two for the Aggies in the series could make things very interesting. San Diego State and Colorado State stumbling could also help Utah State’s chances, although it’s also possible that could just mean fewer Mountain West Conference teams get in the tournament and not be any particular boon to the Aggies.
The Runnin’ Utes are far, far away from NCAA Tournament talk, although conversation about how bad of shape the program is in could theoretically be quieted for at least a few days after they had an impressive win on the road against Colorado last Saturday after being down by 19 points with less than nine minutes to play.
Then again, the Utah Athletics department put out a call on its official Twitter account Sunday seeking questions for athletic director Mark Harlan’s podcast, and predictably, a bunch of the replies were about changes that could happen within the men’s hoops program. So much for Saturday.
The Utes were scheduled to play Arizona State this Tuesday in a rescheduled game from December, but the two sides agreed to postpone it again because schedules are getting crammed, so Utah will next face Arizona on Thursday at home.
Hey, it’s possible the Utes can string a couple of nice wins together, but right now, just getting through the season is the first objective.
Don’t look now, but the Wildcats have won five of their last six games after sweeping the Idaho Vandals last week (in true pandemic fashion, that streak started all the way back on Jan. 2, but winning is good no matter when or where it happens).
Actually, now is the perfect time to look, as Weber State’s series this week is against Montana State, which is the only undefeated team remaining in Big Sky Conference play. A win or two would certainly be big for the Wildcats.
Of course, the Big Sky’s NCAA Tournament presence is going to entirely come down to which team wins the conference tournament, but, in the deepest observation of the week, having a higher seed in said conference tournament is better than having a lower one.
The Thunderbirds were bit by COVID-19 cases last week and had to cancel their road series against a solid Idaho State team. As of now, SUU’s home series against Northern Colorado scheduled for this week is on.
Like Weber State, the Thunderbirds are looking to finish the regular season out strong to position themselves well for the Big Sky tournament. So far they’ve acquitted themselves very well, as they’re second in the conference standings in between Montana State and the Wildcats. Can they keep it up?
The Wolverines didn’t have the greatest weekend, as they split a series against a Tarleton State team that isn’t very good. It was UVU’s first loss in conference play this season, so maybe there’s not too much reason to be negative, but how the Wolverines bounce back is going to be critical as they try to position themselves well in the WAC.
UVU was scheduled to play a series against the Chicago State Cougars this weekend, but the Cougars suspended their season, so the Wolverines don’t have a scheduled contest until next weekend at home against Utah foe Dixie State. Last time that happened in January, the Wolverines scheduled a random game against St. John’s, which was fun.
Most importantly, UVU sits in third in the WAC. Like the Big Sky schools, can the Wolverines finish the regular season strong in preparation for the conference tournament? By the way, yes, big man Fardaws Aimaq still leads the country in rebounding by a gigantic margin.
Let’s end this thing on a good note, shall we? The Trailblazers got their first-ever WAC win on Saturday, beating California Baptist 79-75, and on the road no less (and CBU is a decent team at 3-3 in conference play!).
Up by seven with 1:38 to play, Dixie almost blew it, as CBU got to within two, but the Trailblazers did just enough to get the victory.
As we said last week, a couple of victories here and there should be considered a good season for Dixie.